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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Interview with Tim Grover, Author of Relentless

Tim Grover has trained Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and many other elite athletes. His new book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable (co-written with Shari Lesser Wenk) divides competitors into three categories: Coolers, Closers, and Cleaners. A Cleaner is the ultimate competitor who has an "insatiable addiction to success." A Closer "can handle a lot of pressure" and will perform effectively if his task is clearly defined, while a Cooler is a follower who "can make a huge play, but he's ultimately not responsible for the outcome."

I recently spoke with Grover and he shared with me his observations about the mindset of elite athletes.

Friedman: "In your book you discuss how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade performed in the 2012 playoffs en route to winning the NBA championship. What is your take on LeBron James' performance in the 2010 playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers and his performance in the 2011 playoffs with the Miami Heat? What do you think was going on with him that prevented him from performing up to the capabilities that he displayed in 2012?"

Grover: "In his early years I think that LeBron was having a hard time figuring out who he is and was as a player. There are 13 different characteristics that I mention in Relentless that define who a Cooler is, who a Closer is and who a Cleaner is. In his early years with Cleveland he did not have that father figure--or that Cleaner, as I call it--to kind of guide him through those stages. LeBron was learning on the fly. When you come into Cleveland as the man having all of that pressure on you from high school and not having anybody to teach you how to deal with it and how to handle that in athletics, then it accumulates too much until you start overanalyzing things and you start thinking too much. You start worrying about what everybody else is saying. When he was in Miami, Dwyane Wade--having gone through all the trials and tribulations with the Miami Heat, from the (2006) championship to all the way down to being a Lottery team--learned how to deal with all the different levels of adversity and success. He was able to teach LeBron or when he would see LeBron in certain situations playing or in practice he knew how to put LeBron in position to succeed."

Friedman: "As you just mentioned in your answer and as you discuss in your book, you define competitors as Coolers, Closers and Cleaners. I am going to mention several players--one is retired and the rest are still active--and I would like to know which category you would place each of them in and why you would place that player in that particular category. The first one is a player who I know that you worked with when he played for the Chicago Bulls: Scottie Pippen."

Grover: "Scottie was a Closer. Scottie was a Closer who understood that his role was to assist and help the ultimate Cleaner (Michael Jordan) get to where he wanted to get to. When Scottie was was placed in a couple situations where he was the lead person on the team he found out how difficult it was not only to deal with the pressure on the court but also what comes with it off the court. Every time there is a mistake on the team or there is a loss or there is some off the court issue, you have to deal with that. Not every individual can deal with that situation."

Friedman: "That is the same category that you place LeBron in as well. You called LeBron a Closer for the reasons that you gave in your earlier answer. Is that correct?"

Grover: "Right. It's still early in LeBron's career. Remember, a Cleaner is a combination of many different aspects: championships, what you do on the court, what you do off the court. LeBron is still early in his career and what I have seen in the past (resembles a Closer) but he is definitely heading in the direction toward Cleaner status. I don't think that he is there yet because Cleaner status is all about what the end result is. It's not about the skill level, because we know that his skill level is extremely superior. It's about the mentality you have and how you handle it from the neck up. That can apply to anybody in any walk of life, not just in basketball. This is about the mental makeup of an individual."

Friedman: "So, even with the Finals MVP and the performance this season during the 27 game winning streak and so forth, you still don't think that LeBron has fully reached Cleaner level?"

Grover: "No, I don't. Each individual is held to a different standard. So, the standard that I would hold him to as a Cleaner is much different than the standard I would set for another player who does not have his ability. Three MVPs going on number four--which he will win--is not the end result. The end result is the championship. Now, if they pull off the championship again this year then we will definitely move him up into that Cleaner category. As of now, there is more that needs to be proved."

Friedman: "How would you categorize Chris Paul and why?"

Grover: "Chris Paul is definitely a Cleaner. No question."

Friedman: "In your estimation, what is the difference between Chris Paul and LeBron James? LeBron James has won three MVPs and a championship, while Chris Paul has not attained any of those things. What difference do you see in Chris Paul’s mindset?"

Grover: "Chris has not had a chance to play with the talent level that LeBron has. Throughout Chris' whole career, he has always wanted the ball in his hands. He has always decided whether he is going to shoot the ball or put the ball in someone else's hands to succeed. He is always willing to take the last shot and accept that pressure. He is always dictating where his players should be and what they should be doing. There was an article recently that stated that his teammates are tired of hearing him constantly telling them that they need to get better and play at a higher level. He is constantly relentless about putting that in their heads all the time. That is what a Cleaner does. Not everyone is going to be able to get to that championship level but it is about the mentality that you are applying to do what you can to get there."

Friedman: "What about Kevin Durant? Where would you place him?"

Grover: "Kevin Durant, to me right now, is also a Closer. I feel like Russell Westbrook is actually the Cleaner on that team."

Friedman: "That is very interesting, because I think that in the past 20 years or so in each generation there has been one great player who has been a bit underestimated. You and I may disagree a little bit about Scottie Pippen but I think that he was unappreciated. I think that in the next decade--the 2000s--Kobe Bryant has been unfairly criticized or unappreciated and I think that the next guy who is getting that mantle of being a great player but everybody is nitpicking his game or saying that he has the wrong attitude is Russell Westbrook. So, it is interesting that you say that he is a Cleaner and not Kevin Durant. I think that this is a minority opinion but I would really like to hear you explain what you see in Westbrook's game that maybe a lot of people are not seeing."

Grover: "He is 100% fearless. If you look at the characteristics of a Cleaner, one of them is that it is better to be feared than to be liked. He instills fear into his opponents and he doesn't care about being liked. He doesn't care about being liked by the media, he doesn't care about being liked by his teammates or by his opponents. His attitude is that he has a job to do and this is how he is going to do it. He will take the last second shot if necessary. They are interchangeable because there are some nights that I see Kevin Durant as a Cleaner but the majority of the time from a mental standpoint I see Russell as being the person who drives that team and gives them their personality."

Friedman: "You have not personally worked with Westbrook, have you?"

Grover: "I have not."

Friedman: "But obviously you've worked with Kobe, so you know Kobe better than you know Russell Westbrook. From what you've observed knowing Kobe very well and from what you've observed of Westbrook from a distance, do you see a similarity in their mindsets?"

Grover: "Very similar. Very, very similar."

Friedman: "That is interesting. I think that a lot of people would disagree with you about that but on that particular point I agree with you and I have written about that for the past year or two. When Kobe retires or at least declines physically--even though that seemingly has not happened yet--I think that Westbrook is going to take over as the best guard in the league even though many people will not even realize that this has happened.

Where would you place Carmelo Anthony in your continuum? Also, give an explanation for why you would place him there."

Grover: "Carmelo is one of those individuals on the Closer/Cleaner border. He goes back and forth. As he grows older in his career and deals with everything that you have to deal with in New York I think that he will obtain Cleaner status. I think that a lot of times he lets outside things interfere with what he is doing on the court. One thing I always say is a Cleaner knows what his job is. People always talk about Kobe and say he should pass the ball more and shoot less but Kobe's job is to get buckets. That's Kobe's job. That's what Melo's job is. You have to keep that mentality and let other teams make the adjustment toward you while also realizing that this is your main focus but not your only focus--if you are having an off night then you have to get your teammates in position to do what you are not able to do on a particular day. I think that is what Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant have to do in order to get to that next level."

Friedman: "That is interesting because in some of his public comments Kobe Bryant has said that Carmelo should accept that this is his role instead of trying to do other things or trying to justify why he took certain shots. Kobe has said that Carmelo should have a mentality like his own and not apologize for shooting a lot. So, you think that Carmelo is a hybrid who has some Closer tendencies and some Cleaner tendencies but that he is not quite in either category."

Grover: "Right."

Friedman: "I read a book a few months ago that deals with sports training and sports motivation. It is Stillpower by Garret Kramer. Have you read that book or are you familiar with its theme?"

Grover: "No, I have not."

Friedman: "Since you have not read the book I am going to briefly describe a couple aspects of the book to you and then ask you to compare that book's approach to your approach. There are a couple major points in the Stillpower book. One is very similar to comments that you made. In your book you talk about the Zone and that the Zone is not about thinking but about doing. You do what you are supposed to do without overthinking and overanalyzing. Kramer also says that the Zone is a place for 'minimal thinking or analyzing.' So you guys have the same point of view about that but in another aspect I see a bit of a difference. The very title of your book is Relentless and you describe using willpower and strength of mind to run right over any obstacle that is in front of you. In order to be a Cleaner that is what you have to do, kind of like what you said about Carmelo Anthony. He has to know that he is a scorer and he has to accept it, regardless of what the media says or what anybody else says. He just has to do that and just run over any obstacle that stops him. Whereas Kramer believes that sometimes too much emphasis is placed on willpower. He contrasts that with Stillpower, which he defines as 'The clarity of mind to live with freedom and ease; the inner source of excellence; the opposite of willpower.' That seems like a different approach from your method of being strong-willed and defiant, which he believes can be a detriment in certain situations, that being too strong-willed can get you out of the Zone and get you out of the mentality to succeed. I see value in his approach but I also see value in your approach and I know that there are players who are following your way. Based on my description of his book, do you see a place for this concept of Stillpower and for putting the mind at ease? I also think that there is a similarity between Stillpower and some of the philosophies that Phil Jackson espoused. What do you think of that and how does all of this mesh with your idea of just relentless willpower and attack, attack, attack?"

Grover: "Here is my issue with Stillpower. You can't have Stillpower unless your skills are so refined that you don't have to think about it. You talk about willpower and using willpower to get through something but if you don't have the mastery of the skills or the mental mindset to be relentless at it where it's so well defined then you can have all the willpower in the world and not be able to it. So my approach is that your skills at whatever you are doing from a physical and mental standpoint have to be so well defined and so mastered that you don't have to think about it. I always use Michael (Jordan) as an example. When he played, his mastery of the fundamental skills was so second nature that he never had to even think about what he was doing. He didn't even have to see the rim. He knew that if he was on a certain part of the floor he had taken so many shots from there that you could have a hand in his face or push him or do whatever you want to do he knew that the shot was going in. My thing is that in order to not be able to think and not to be have to use an excessive amount of willpower you first have to have a skill set that is so second to none that you don’t have to think about what you are doing. It is all reflexes, not reaction."

Friedman: "In a recent interview with T.J. Simers of the L.A. Times, Kobe Bryant admitted that his way, his forcefulness is 'very unbalanced' and 'not healthy' but that even though he understands that being so forceful can lead to imbalance in other parts of his life and it might not be the healthiest approach overall that was the approach he had to take to be a champion. He is willing to sacrifice a little bit of that healthiness or balance. This is an issue that you discuss at length in your book. You make reference to Tiger Woods and his personal life and you even said that you don't think that he should have apologized--at least not publicly--because that took something away from his competitiveness by making a public acknowledgment of his weakness, so to speak. Is it possible to have the 'dark side' that you describe in your book and that Kobe mentioned in the interview, to have that 'dark side' competitiveness without having it spill over into one’s personal life? Can someone reach that absolute highest level of Cleaner status and still be what most people would consider to be a balanced, healthy person in one's personal life?"

Grover: "You cannot be at the top of your game, profession or whatever it is without sacrificing something else. It's just not possible, because you are so focused on getting that one thing that something else has to give or something else has to be broken. You are pursuing the one thing that means more to you than anything else and if you can't get to that one thing then you figure out a different direction or a different path to get that result. When you do that then there is always something else is always going to take a back seat. Is that a healthy balance? No, and we talk about that in Relentless, that it's not a healthy balance. It's not a healthy lifestyle and it really is not for everybody but if you are looking to achieve that ultimate success then this is the way it has to be."

Friedman: "In your book you say that you don't really think that it is possible for people to change, that you either have this mindset or you don't. A recent article about Tiger said that he is more open with the media and he is more relaxed and he seems like a different person. The writer tried to figure out if Tiger is number one in the world again because he changed or if changing his personality helped him to become number one. I suspect that your response would be 'None of the above' and that you don't really believe that he has changed and that at his core he is still the same person and this is why he is number one again."

Grover: "100% correct."

Friedman: "So do you think that the 'new' Tiger Woods that is available for public consumption--not to disparage Tiger--but that it is a p.r. thing in a sense and that what he has really done is gone back to the elements that originally enabled him to be a champion?"

Grover: "Correct. He lost his 'dark side' and it took him a while to find it again. Now he's healthy physically. To me, he tried to become something he wasn't and we make that perfectly clear in the book. You become the way you are based on something that happens to you in your childhood or growing up and that makes you the way you are. How you take that will determine where you fit into one of those three categories. All Tiger has done is redefined himself back to the person he always has been."

Friedman: "Just to take this full circle, if your belief is true that a person can't change and that each person fits into one of these categories then is it really possible for LeBron to make this evolution after almost a decade in the league? Can he go from being a Closer to being a Cleaner if by nature he is not like Kobe, not like Jordan, not like Tiger Woods, not like Chris Paul, not like Westbrook? If he is not like that then how can he completely become that way?"

Grover: "Anyone can and that is the point of the book but it just depends how you handle the situations that are thrown your way. Let's say that they win the championship. Will he continue to want to win more or will he say that's enough? If they don't win the championship how will he react to that? Will he become a better player or will he stay the same way? Everyone has the ability to get to the next stage, to go from a Closer to a Cleaner or to go from a Cooler to a Closer, but what's thrown in front of you and how you handle it will determine that. It's not just about sports. You can be a Cleaner as a bus driver, as a teacher, as a radio host. It really doesn't matter what it is you do but rather how you handle what is thrown at you and what direction that takes you in."

Friedman: "From your perspective, LeBron is clearly the best player in the league, but whether or not you are a Cleaner is not determined by your skill set. His skill set at this point is second to none but the mindset that you are talking about--that thirst that if I have one championship then I want two, if I lose in the Finals then I want to get back--is the kind of thing that you want to see or is to be determined regarding LeBron’s status.”

Grover: "Absolutely."

Friedman: "Thank you very much for your time. Your book is an interesting read. You say in the book that your job is not to make people comfortable and you don't mind making people uncomfortable. I think that it will be an uncomfortable read for some people from the standpoint that, as you alluded to in the book and in this interview, it takes a 'dark side' to get to that highest level. I think that is a message that a lot of people may not want to hear or want to believe, even though there seems to be some truth to that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:04 PM



At Tuesday, April 09, 2013 8:44:00 PM, Anonymous st said...

great interview. provided some valuable insight into the mindset of a champion.


At Wednesday, April 10, 2013 6:54:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

I think this is an excellent and insightful interview and I thoroughly enjoyed it - thanks!
The book sounds very interesting. I wonder if it includes many anecdotes about the people he trained or is it more a philosophical kind of book? Differently put, how much is this a sports book and how much philosophical?

At Wednesday, April 10, 2013 7:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The book contains anecdotes and it expresses a philosophy as well. Later this week I will post my review. The book is scheduled for general release on April 16.

At Wednesday, April 10, 2013 10:52:00 AM, Anonymous aw said...

LeBron does derseve criticism for his play in the 2011 finals. In 2010 the cavs lost to a better, deeper Boston team. LeBron had a bad game and some people say he quit on his team, which I disagree with. Any great player can have a off night but having other guys who can consistently step up when the star player has one of those nights makes all of the difference in the world lebron dodnt have that with the cavs.

Kobe bryant led the Lakers to two straight titles in 2009 and 2010. But prior to that he wasn't getting criticism for his teams failures like LeBron has. Kobe didnt perform that well in the 2004 finals. He quit on his team in 2006 round one of the playoffs. In game seven the lakers were down at halftime. Kobe only took like two shots I believe in the second half. Why didnt he do more to try to get his team back in the game. Why didnt he apply himself more. It was game seven of a playoffs series. The time his team needed him to come through the most. In game four of the 2008 finals the lakers were up by a lot at halftime. In the second half boston started a comeback. Kobe watched boston come back and did nothing in the second half to try to get his team to win.

Its not really fair to judge a player based on one or two playoff series is the point.im trying to make.

As for Pippen being underappreciated, you can make that case. He was overshadowed by Jordan. But at the end of the day I think Pippen was best suited to be a great supporting player on a team.

At Wednesday, April 10, 2013 3:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I covered LeBron James' performance in game five versus Boston in 2010 and I covered most of his home playoff games as a Cavalier. I can tell you in no uncertain terms that he quit; I don't know why he quit but I know the difference between a fully engaged James and a James who is disengaged. Here is my recap of that game:

LeBron Comes Up Empty as Celtics Obliterate Cavaliers in Cleveland

There is a huge difference between not performing well and quitting. Regardless of how one evaluates Kobe Bryant's performance in the 2004 Finals, no one can credibly suggest that he quit--nor can anyone credibly suggest that he quit versus Phoenix in 2006, as I explained in this article:

To Shoot or Not to Shoot?

Your description of what happened in game four of the 2008 Finals is also incorrect. Bryant scored 10 fourth quarter points in that contest but received no help from his teammates. Here is my recap of that game:

Faulty Comparisons: Career Legacies Are Not Defined by One Game


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